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Human Relationships with the Divine

To the polytheist and their co-travelers who subscribe to the existence of deities, the relationship between gods and the humans who worship them can at best be said to be capricious. The gods seem to do as they please without let or hindrance, while men are left to endure, as best they can, the consequences of the divine will. To change the adverse effects of the divine will on man, or at least ameliorate their severity, humanity takes recourse to supplications and prayers to the infallible deities.

The relationship between humanity and divinity appears, metaphorically, to be one of an unending war of nerves, with the divine holding the longer end of the whipping stick. However, man often falls back on his God-given gifts, such as his Metis, to avoid being crushed by the heavy weight of the divine load imposed on him and thus escape being sent to an early grave. The Odysseus Experience The many travails of Odysseus and his sailors in the hands of the Grecian gods perched on mount Olympus, aptly illustrate the unending conflict between humanity and divinity.

From Homer’s epic narration in the Odyssey, the wanderings of Odysseus and his warriors on the treacherous Ionian Sea and the enchanted islands therein, were made doubly more difficult by vindictive gods and goddesses who were bent on thwarting the efforts of these mortals. The ways by which the Grecian gods, who while luxuriating comfortably on mount Olympus, directed the affairs of suffering men on earth, took several forms, according to their whims and caprices at any particular moment. The theological base of the beliefs of the ancient Greeks was polytheism.

The Greeks had many deities who they believed lived on mount Olympus. These gods and goddesses while taking the physical form of men and women could and did interact sexually with humans. The products of such alliances often took grotesque forms, or forms of exquisite beauty. Examples of the products of human and divine alliances include such grotesque creatures as Polyphemus the man-eating, one-eyed Cyclops, son of Poseidon the sea god. Then there were the enchanting, acquisitively beautiful sirens, which enticed men to their island and turned them into raw materials for dinner.

In such beautiful good company were the witch and enchantresses Calypso and the bewitching goddess Circe. Odysseus epitomizes one way humans have learned to deal with the vicissitudes and stumbling blocks put on their way by the gods, during human odysseys or tortuous journeys through this mortal life. For Odysseus, his ‘Metis’ or cunning intelligence, was his major heroic trait with which he either avoided or circumvented the diabolic plans of the divine to prematurely terminate his mortal existence.

On many perilous occasions his Metis served him in very good steed. Odysseus used his cunning intelligence to get out of trouble several times. He used verbal disguise to escape from the clutches of the Cyclops. When questioned by the one-eye Cyclops, Polyphemus, what his name was, Odysseus said his name was “Noman”. After blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus, Odysseus cleverly schemed his party’s escape from the cave of Polyphemus, by tying his men to the underbelly of the Cyclops’ sheep, while he brought up the rear held under the ram.

“As for myself I kept on puzzling to think how I could best save my own life and those of my companions; I schemed and schemed, as one who knows that his life depends upon it, for the danger was very great…. In the end I deemed that this plan would be the best… ” (Odyssey, IX. 215) Shortly after making good his escape from the man-eating Cyclops, he came upon the beautifully enchanting goddess Calypso. His dalliance with this divine being lasted for a whole seven years, thus further putting back his time of arrival at his ultimate destination, his family, home and throne in Ithaca.

For modern man, the experience of Odysseus with Calypso is represented by our tendency to follow premature gratification of desires. Thus diverted, we lose focus of our ultimate destination in life. When the goddess calypso warned him that he would suffer more trials and suffering before he got home to Ithaca, Odysseus replied: “And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea, I can bear that too, with a spirit tempered to endure. Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now in the waves and wars. Add this to the total– Bring the trial on! ” (Odyssey, V. 244-248)

Odysseus’s response to this warning by a woman and goddess who obviously loved him, typifies another attitude of man in dealing with adversity engineered by the divine. That is the spirit of endurance and resignation to fate. Odysseus knew that he, his sailors and their ship were at the mercy of Poseidon, the sea god; if they attempted further sailing on the Ionian Sea. Poseidon, who had become an implacable enemy to Odysseus, had vowed to make any further journey on the sea as perilous as possible for Odysseus, in recompense for Odysseus’s act of blinding Poseidon’s son Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops.

Regardless of the danger to his personal safety and that of his men, Odysseus was determined to continue his journey home, no matter the cost The love-hate relationship between man and the divine often brings out the best and most enduring trait in man’s character: bravery. In the eyes of brave mortal man, adversity engineered by the divine, is to be taken as a challenge to be faced, not necessarily to be avoided. This trait in man is well encapsulated in Virgil’s immortal words in Aenid book five. ‘“Possum estes possuit” (They are able because they believe that they are able)’ (Virgil, Aenid V)

The acts of vindictiveness exhibited by the god Poseidon and other gods like him in on mount Olympus, rather than weaken Odysseus, merely hardened him in his resolve to overcome all obstacles placed in his way by both men and gods; and return home to his long-suffering wife Penelope and son Telemachus. Thus Odysseus’s eventual triumph suggests that man is the architect of his own fortune or misfortune. Odysseus by believing in himself eventually overcame all obstacles, and returned home to Ithaca in triumph.

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